Chinese government highlights occupational disease crisis among migrant workers

Two Chinese government ministries yesterday pledged to improve working conditions for migrant workers and ensure that enterprises that currently refuse to pay compensation to injured workers can no longer evade their legal responsibilities.

“One of the most serious problems threatening migrant workers’ rights is their poor working conditions,” Yang Zhiming, vice-minister of human resources and social security, said in a report to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on 28 April, adding that:

In some highly-dangerous and heavily-polluting industries, work health and safety is very problematic, with a lot of migrant workers being injured or suffering from occupational disease.

Yang also confirmed the key finding of CLB’s new research report The Hard Road: Seeking justice for victims of pneumoconiosis in China, published 26 April, that employers routinely refuse to pay compensation and that migrant workers encounter numerous delays and obstacles in their quest for legally mandated compensation.

Yang stressed the need for enterprises to sign labour contracts with migrant workers, and he seemed to echo CLB’s recommendation for local governments to set up contingency funds for pneumoconiosis victims whose employer refuses to pay or has gone out of business.

Yang demanded that local governments improve their monitoring and supervision of high dust industries and ensure that workers get proper training and are aware of the dangers before being employed in such industries.

The Ministry of Health, the same day, reported that pneumoconiosis was still by far the most widespread occupational disease in China with 14,495 new cases diagnosed last year, 80 percent of all officially diagnosed occupational disease cases. However, as CLB’s report points out, countless other pneumoconiosis victims do not or cannot get an official diagnosis because of the numerous bureaucratic obstacles involved.

Nevertheless, the ministry did acknowledge that migrant workers were now the largest group of victims, and pledged to “establish a long-term prevention policy and strengthen supervision.”

While the ministries’ statement are welcome, and do indicate the central government’s concern and awareness of the issues, it is local governments who will have to enforce these new policies. And, as always, there is a danger that central government policy will be given a backseat to local economic interests.
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